Lebanon's alliance with the US is doing it more harm than good

Lebanon's alliance with the US is doing it more harm than good
7 min read
28 Jul, 2020
Comment: Unless the US takes serious steps to repair the relationship, there will be few incentives left for the Lebanese to keep the alliance alive, writes Michal Kranz.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets Lebanese President Aoun in Beirut, March 2019 [Getty]
Battered by the worst economic and fiscal crisis in its history, Lebanon is running out of options. As talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have faltered and western donors have refused to give in to the establishment's pleas for aid, it is no surprise that Lebanon's leadership has reportedly turned to China for help this month.

Although nothing has materialised yet, the response from the United States has already been critical - US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker, and CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie have each separately decried the move. 

Life-saving Chinese aid for Lebanon is unlikely to materialize, despite politicians' best hopes. But the rebuke from US officials on the issue is yet another example of a growing and ever-more-frustrating history of admonition from the US over how Lebanon should go about securing its future, and who it should be allowed to work with to reach its own goals.

As Lebanon struggles to survive, America's sole motivator in the country continues to be combating Hezbollah and Iran's influence at whatever cost, with little demonstrated interest in working with Lebanon in a truly bilateral fashion. On top of this,
 US bullying has reached fever pitch under the Trump administration, making it clearer than ever that current US officials do not act with Lebanon's best interests at heart. Unless the Americans take serious steps to repair the relationship, there will be few incentives left for the Lebanese to keep the alliance alive.

Undoubtedly, Lebanon's most powerful tether to the United States at the moment is its dollarized economy. While it isn't true that the US is to blame for Lebanon's economic crisis as some have suggested, America has done little to help Lebanon as its society has collapsed. But like France and the IMF, the US has maintained that no aid will arrive in Lebanon until the country's political class implements the necessary reforms.

Any limited diplomatic common ground seems to have evaporated, only to be replaced by scolding, deflection and ultimatums

Deep political and economic reform in Lebanon is a must, but the US has gone beyond just waiting on the sidelines to undermine Lebanon. According to the country's Minister of Industry Imad Hoballah, the United States has been actively advising Arab countries to spurn the Lebanese government as it looks for economic help abroad. 

Over the last several years, any limited diplomatic common ground on security and development that existed between Lebanon and the US seems to have evaporated, only to be replaced by scolding, deflection, and ultimatums that have resulted in little if any productive results.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his subordinates at the State Department have visited Lebanon time and time again over the past two years with the same message in hand - that Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation, and that the Lebanese 
must do everything in their power to topple it.

This message has not been delivered as part of a dialogue, but through unilateral declarations from the American side demanding that the Lebanese comply or face sanctions - never mind the fact that past homegrown efforts to rein in Hezbollah have failed, and that the group has simply become too powerful, and too popular, in Lebanon for opponents to meaningfully challenge.

Having already forced a Lebanese bank to close last year after it was accused of helping fund Hezbollah, sanctions aimed at the party have become broad enough that many Lebanese have begun to view them as attacks on the country itself, not just members of the militant group.

Read more: 
Lebanon PM Diab accuses Israel of 'dangerous military escalation', as questions remain over 'Hezbollah clashes'

While some countries like Iraq have received waivers from the US this year to import Iranian electricity, earlier this month, Pompeo vowed to stop any Iranian imports of crude oil into Lebanon that aimed to ease pressure on the Lebanese pound in the midst of a fuel crisis. Iran and Hezbollah's malign activities notwithstanding, actions like these make it difficult to view the US as an actor that is sincerely concerned about Lebanon's wellbeing. 

Shea's behavior during a recent diplomatic row over her comments on Hezbollah didn't help America's optics problem. In a perfect display of the current American attitude toward Lebanon, the US ambassador told local reporters at a press conference that she would be making a brief statement on the matter and would take no questions, all after dismissively "shushing" the Lebanese journalists gathered and telling them to "be quiet." 

One of the only real carrots the US has offered Lebanon has been its military assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces. This assistance, which has totaled over $224 million annually since 2015, has long been heralded as a key pillar of the US presence in Lebanon, with the underlying assumption being that a strengthened Lebanese army would act as a check on Hezbollah's might.

While this amount of aid is significant, it is dwarfed by the military assistance the US gives other countries in the region - Egypt has received 
$1.3 billion annually since 1987, BahrainQatar, and the United Arab Emirates have each received billions in weapons packages in the last two years, and Israel has gotten over $3.1 billion annually since 2017.

Israel, America's closest regional ally, has always taken priority over Lebanon in the US' regional dealings, as Commander McKenzie 
made clear during an interview in Beirut this month. 

Fundamentally, this is the logic that lies at the core of the American military assistance to Lebanon - by design, the outdated helicopters, aircraft, and military gear the US provides to Lebanon are enough to help the Lebanese army ward off incursions by Islamic State from Syria, but are not enough to allow it to defend against the state-of-the-art stealth jets the US pledged to give Israel in 2019.

Lebanon must finally be allowed to make its own destiny and not remain singularly beholden to one great power or another

The Trump administration infamously withheld the aid to Lebanon late last year, reportedly motivated by concerns from right-wing hawks on the National Security Council that Lebanon's institutions were not doing enough to stand up to Hezbollah. Yet how is the Lebanese army supposed to challenge Hezbollah when it remains too weak to realistically refute the militant group's stated raison d'être - that it is the only military force in Lebanon that is capable of defending the country against Israel? 

Furthermore, in an environment where Israel has stated that it will not distinguish between Hezbollah and the Lebanese army in a future war against Lebanon as it did in 2006, why is Lebanon's right to defend itself any less legitimate than Israel's? Lebanon's security concerns reached a new high this week as Hezbollah and Israel engaged in renewed clashes in south Lebanon on July 27, in which the Israeli military shelled Lebanese territory.

To make matters worse, changing this frustrating status quo by turning to other powers for military aid has only earned Lebanon more harsh words from the Americans. In 2017, Lebanese leaders were forced to abandon a 15-year, interest-free, $1 billion weapons package for the Lebanese army from Russia after being reprimanded for it by the United States. Lebanon later settled for a $5 million Russian deal to provide arms to the Internal Security Forces instead. 

Dealings with Russia, Iran, China, and the US each have their advantages and drawbacks, and each have questionable agendas in the region (to put it mildly). But in a multi-polar Middle East, Lebanon must finally be allowed to make its own destiny and not remain singularly beholden to one great power or another.

Lebanon's ties to the US may have once been beneficial, but under the current circumstances, they have become a hindrance rather than a boon for Lebanon on its long road to stability.

Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, covering everything from US national security to refugee issues in Lebanon.

Follow him on Twitter: @Michal_Kranz

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.